How does a background in law, sports, and business, adequately prepare one to run a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children and their families impacted by grief, trauma, or addiction?  This may be a question Mary FitzGerald, CEO of Eluna, would have found difficult to answer were she not watching the 2014 HBO documentary, One Last Hug, which chronicled three days of Eluna’s bereavement camp, specifically telling the story of 17-year-old Erin Metcalf, who faced terminal liver cancer.  

FitzGerald, who had recently lost her brother to colon cancer, was moved by the manner   Metcalf was more concerned about the impact her impending death would have on her older siblings and family once she was gone.  FitzGerald recounted the courage, compassion, and selflessness of Metcalf.  FitzGerald, who hails from a large family, was motivated to combine her talents as an attorney with an MBA in marketing to a higher purpose.  Immediately after watching the documentary, FitzGerald contacted Eluna, known then as The Moyer Foundation, and shortly thereafter became the organization’s CEO.

For 20 years, Eluna, highlighted by its flagship programs Camp Erin and Camp Mariposa, has assisted thousands of children to navigate the difficulty of trauma and grief. The Children’s Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM) estimates 1 out of 14 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they reach the age of 18. Eluna counters that eye-opening statistic with a simple premise: No child should grieve alone. 

FitzGerald is now faced with a new series of challenges. How does one lead an organization in the wake of COVID-19, while maintaining its 20-year commitment to supporting children and their families?  Much of what made Eluna special violates standard coronavirus safety tips, such as social distancing and staying inside. 

“I miss the hugs,” FitzGerald said in a tone that suggested she is resigned to the possibility such welcoming gestures may take time return to the Eluna culture. With camps suspended as a result of the coronavirus, how does one replace a transformational weekend camp that combines traditional activities and grief education and emotional support for thousands of children nationwide? 

But drawing on her background in marketing, having already led Eluna through a rebranding process, FitzGerald was prime to embrace new opportunities brought on by adversity.  Many of Eluna’s volunteers and partners, which include: bereavement centers, hospice care, Boys and Girls Clubs, addiction treatment facilities and others, are working to maintain their pulse on the communities they serve utilizing technology to stay connected. 

“We’ve been pivoting and planning to see what we can deliver for our partners, to see what we can do from a webinar and online standpoint,” FitzGerald said. 

Adding, “Our partners have engaged in lots of Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts.  Our Washington DC group did this song from all the counselors called, ‘I got your back!’”

But it’s not simply confronting new methods to stay connected and to deliver services to families, FitzGerald is also aware of the day-to-day challenges that many families in their network face. Moreover, the challenges are further complicated because grief and trauma are not always easily identified. 

For some, it may look like lack of participation in extracurricular activities. Others may report not having lots of friends or a reluctance to leave home. Conversely, some may stay away from home all day, not wanting to return because of an unsafe environment.  

FitzGerald also cites different roles that children take on as a result of trauma.  “Some (children) become the caretaker; some will play the comedians; and some will become the hero or overachiever,” she said. 

FitzGerald would be among the first to offer Eluna’s recent efforts, as a result of COVID-19, are not designed to replace the physical connection that provides a strong healing component for the children they serve. Undaunted by a new series of challenges brought on by COVID-19, Eluna’s innovative team and FitzGerald’s leadership have uncovered new opportunities and methods, allowing them to serve more families with added support. The virtual methods that Eluna is now embracing to stay connected will most likely become a permanent part of Eluna’s mission, supplementing the physical connections children will receive once Eluna returns to the new normal.  

FitzGerald’s perseverance and commitment to realizing hope in the midst of pressure prompted me to ask if there were words that inspire her. Without hesitation, she cited tennis great, Billie Jean King, “Pressure is a privilege!  I live by that!”

Click here for resources from Eluna for thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.